Review: Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips

This is a book which has been on my shelf for a whopping ten years. I’m not sure why it’s taken me this long to read it, but I’ll thank Robin’s Read 52 Books in 52 Weeks challenge for encouraging me to stop buying new books and read the ones I have!

Here’s a brief summary. The twelve Olympian gods are real, living in a townhouse in London and are not best pleased about it. Artemis is a dog-walker, Apollo is a TV psychic, Aphrodite is a phone sex operator and Dionysus is a DJ. They long for the days they were worshipped as gods and have fallen into boredom and depression. After a petty spat between Apollo and Aphrodite, the goddess of love encourages her son, Eros, to fire one of his famous arrows and cause Apollo to fall in love with the first mortal he sees. This, unfortunately, ends up being Alice who falls victim to the god’s advances, much perturbing Neil, the man who loves her. 

I’m going to say straight up I only gave this book 2 Stars, but for the life of me, I’m struggling to figure out why I had such a hard time with it. I studied the Classics at university and even before then, I was enamored with Greek myths. And I really am in love with how Marie Phillips created these characters because I totally buy them being these gods in the twenty-first century. They’re spot on depictions and the whole book is written in a very direct and easy style which makes this an easy book to read in an afternoon.

I think my real problem is, I don’t understand what the story wanted from me. I don’t know whether or not if was pure entertainment – if so, I’ve read more entertaining stories. If there was a moral message – if so, I missed it. Or if it was asking me to think – if so, what about? What it seemed to want to be is sensational. In the whole vain of ‘behaving badly,’ there was plenty of sex scenes and swearing in a sort of Hugh Grant, 90s style which is kind of dated now.

There’s also a massive issue when you start to bring classical mythology into a twenty-first-century world. Mythology for me is my first love and constant fascination because of everything it gives you. An amazing story, a moral lesson, a glimpse into the culture which created it, a message which you can point at and say ‘this is important to us’ because it’s still around after all this time. Not to mention an infinite pool of public domain material for anyone stuck for a story idea.

What it’s not is a handy guide as to what’s acceptable. At the start of the book, Apollo, annoyed at a woman for refusing to have sex with me, turns her into a tree. She’s later cut down by the council and that’s the end of that. The main character, Alice, is killed (indirectly) by Apollo for refusing to have sex with him. This is not unusual in myth – Apollo cursed his own priestess, Cassandra, after she refused by giving her the ability to see the future but ensuring no one would ever believe her.

But the book ends, everything fixed and it’s all shrugged off. Apollo isn’t humbled, the gods don’t learn any great lesson and in fact are rewarded for behavior which – judged by a ‘human’ standard, is thoroughly indefensible. Wouldn’t it be more interesting to see what happens if you try and sent Zeus to prison for killing someone with a lightning bolt? Basically, the gods will do as they will and mere mortal are still, after all these years, their playthings. That I believe. But then I have to wonder why I was taken for this ride? What exactly did I gain from the story and the answer is, not a lot.

Maybe I would have been more satisfied if it was Alice who finally stepped out and outplayed or defeated the gods. Which would have been a wonderful twist on Greek Myth – in the same way that we are now seeing Princesses getting themselves out of their own towers. But instead, it’s the boyfriend Neil who becomes ‘The Hero’ who saves Alice from the Underworld.

There is no doubt Marie Phillips knows her mythology and does an amazing job threading in so much of it. The little references to so many stories was really fun to read. I was just hoping there would be a larger message, or more twists and turns. Maybe this was a case of building a story up in my mind too much before reading it!

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